Following tough losses against Fabio Fognini and Dominic Thiem in the semi-final in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, the four-time Caja Magica champion Rafael Nadal has suffered another blow in front of the home crowd, losing to Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-4, 2-6, 6-3.
The young Greek is through to his second Masters 1000 final (Nadal ousted him in Toronto last summer) after a grueling battle and two hours and 34 minutes, winning six points less than Rafa and saving 11 out of 16 break points to stay alive against the mighty opponent.
Nadal served at 73% but that brought him nothing, facing 14 break points after barely losing a point behind the initial shot against Wawrinka last night, unable to overpower the young opponent who did everything right in sets he won.
Stefanos sprayed almost 30 forehand unforced errors but managed to tame his shots and deliver 32 winners, leaving Nadal on a 28-31 ratio which wasn't enough for the triumph. Nothing could separate them in the shortest and most extended exchanges and Stefanos won the battle in those rallies between five and eight shots, returning well and keeping his backhand safe to find the way towards the finish line and deliver one of his best wins.
The opening set lasted for almost an hour, pushing each other to the limits and offering each other 13 break chances. At 4-4, Stefanos grabbed a pivotal break, saving a break point in the next game to seal the first part of the match and boost confidence ahead of the rest of the encounter.
Nadal delivered his best tennis in set number two, outplaying the opponent completely for a 6-2 after rattling off the last four games and looking like the favorite in the deciding set. Instead of that, Stefanos found the range on the return again, sending deep balls and keeping the points on his racquet with bold tennis that secured three consecutive breaks for him, converting the fourth match point at 5-3 to book the title clash with Novak Djokovic on Sunday.
After failing to win the title in the first three clay-court tournaments this spring, Nadal will seek a new chance in Rome where he has to defend 1000 points, desperate for some big wins ahead of Roland Garros where he probably won't be the top favorite.
"You cannot imagine the relief, it's unbelievable. I don't want to say this, but it almost felt like I lost hope at some point. I lost three matches in a row against Rafa but I felt in Toronto I was very close and this match gave me a bit of confidence I can do better in the future.
I'm thrilled that I overcame this and dealt with it mentally. Beating him on clay makes it even more special. I will probably say that the fact that it was a hard court, a bit faster. It felt like he was more confident with his shots at the Australian Open than now.
Now I felt I had more time to defend and attack, which might sound strange, but it felt like much better playing him on clay than on hard, to be honest with you. What did I change? I served and volleyed pretty often, not that much, but I did come to the net a few times.
I was returning much better today than any other day that I have played him. So, return games and keeping him in the rally on his service games, being patient, trying to find the height and the depth and opening the court. Yeah, that was crucial. And also, serving pretty well, much better than at the Australian Open."